While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Edinburgh International Book Festival Wrap-Up

Now that I have attended literary festivals in Wellington, Brisbane, Melbourne and Edinburgh, I know there’s several ways an hour long session with a writer can go. There’s the session where the author reads for too long and leaves very little time for discussion. There’s the session dominated by the chair who has too much or too little knowledge of the author. There’s the session where everything goes well until the audience is asked for questions and there are none. There’s the session where everything goes well until the audience is asked for questions and there is an endless supply of terrible ones…

The motivation to attend most writers’ sessions is to hear the voice behind the voice on the page, and the thoughts behind the book. This was the case with me and Andrey Kurkov (see below). Often, the least interesting part of a session is when the author is asked to read from their latest work (as per Nam Le). You’ve either read it already (if you’re paying £9, you better bloody like their stuff), or it’s so hard to grasp what is going on out of context, or the author isn’t a great reader of their own work. But I’m talking about prose sessions here. The rules don’t apply to poetry…

Carol Ann Duffy
Saturday 23 August, 8pm

Carol Ann Duffy took the stage after a brief intro from the chair and proceeded to read poems for the rest of the hour. She began with two excerpts from 'The Laughter of Stafford Girl's High', and ended with the final section. In between she read poems from her collections The World’s Wife and Rapture. I haven’t read the latter, but I had experienced all the other poems on the page before. Unlike prose, where hearing is a poor cousin of reading, most poems that come to life when read aloud, when performed. This is not true of all poems (some are built for the page, some are unreadable), and not all poets are performers, but Carol Ann Duffy did a good job on Saturday of choosing her set list (continuity, variation, humour) and performing it in such a way that the audience never felt like it was missing a trick.

Nam Le
Sunday 24 August, 10am

There’s always an exception to the rule. In this case the rule is: A short story collection (especially a début collection) can’t make waves. Of course it helps if you’ve done a Tour of Duty at the Iowa Workshop and held fellowships on both sides of the Atlantic. The cynical among us might add the fact that Nam was born in Vietnam (and grew up in Australia), but his collection, The Boat, shoots down expectations that it will play up his exoticism (his word) from the very first story.

The session was actually held as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, beamed into the RBS Main Theatre in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square via Satellite link-up. The audience in Edinburgh got the chance to ask two questions, just to prove this was live and interactive, though the questions were so astute, I almost wonder if these audience members were plants by the festival, or Edinburgh City of Literature, to ensure they weren’t embarrassed in front of the newest City of Literature.

Nam Le spoke candidly and eloquently about how his stories and ultimately his collection came together. A glance at the Q&A section of his website reveals he’s been saying the similar things since March, which isn’t anything against the man, just the world in which writers are forced operate (should they desire to sell many books or at least get reviewed by the NY Times…).

I’ve already quoted one of his analogies on this blog and find myself chewing over the thoughts provoked by this session much more than any other I attended over the festival. Not bad for a freebie.

Andrey Kurkov
Sunday 24 August, 6:45pm

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian of Russian extraction who writes in Russian, though he is also fluent in Ukrainian, and Japanese (in which he trained as a translator; this almost led to him joining the KGB), and English (Sunday’s reading and Q&A was all in English) and perhaps several other languages. His most well known book is Death and the Penguin.

His session, however, fell into the ‘annoying chair who hijacks the hour’ category. When the floor was opened up to questions, I thought, “At last, the books might get discussed!”, only to discover that other audience members were just as interested in what the future holds for politics in the Ukraine—and screw any insights into the books of Andrey Kurkov!

When one audience member expressed his dismay at Kurkov’s views, delivered with his typical black humour, about Ukranian politicians (they’re nice people, but they love money *shrug*), and how, being so close to Poland, this would be disastrous for the EU, and, “Please reassure me it’s not so bleak,” I lost faith in humanity. I raised my hand to ask the next question, but someone else was chosen. My head fell into my hands, but to my surprise, the woman with the microphone asked my question. In fact, being a professional translator, she was better qualified to ask about how involved Andrey Kurkov is in the translation process (Answer: he’s has a new translator for English, who has never contacted him, which is not uncommon across the 20+ languages his work has been translated into; however some, like the Japanese translator who spent three days in Kiev visiting all the sites in Death and the Penguin, do go beyond the call of duty)…

So, the session was not a complete wash, but whenever you write this on the back of your ticket, you know something dire has happened:

When I spend a lot of time by myself, or in the exclusive company of people I have known for a long time, I find my thoughts (and writing) are quite positive w.r.t. human beings on an individual scale. But when I am surrounded by strangers I find I am a total misanthrope.

This was, thankfully, not my final brush with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. On Monday, the last day of the festival and a bank holiday (woo-hoo), Marisa and I attended Ron Butlin’s free reading. He read a very short story and two short poems (one of which I’d previously read here). I would like to thank Ron Butlin, and all the other Ten at Ten authors (and whoever at the Festival came up with this new feature) for restoring my faith in book festivals and humankind. Honestly, sometimes you can’t beat a good reading.

So, my thoughts about the world’s biggest book festival really all boil down to this:

I would have liked to have seen more, but several factors limited the number of sessions I attended:

* the cost (upwards of £9 per hour long session; much more if you wanted to attend a workshop)

* the timing i) (a lot of events on during work hours)

* the timing ii) (a lot of other fringe/international festival events competing for my time and money)

* the nature of book festivals (see misanthropism, cynicism above and elsewhere).

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